A clash of wills between death row prisoner and journalist is potent cinematic fodder, but not in the hands of director Rupert Goold and stars Jonah Hill and James Franco in “True Story,” a movie that’s every bit as run-of-the-mill as its barely there title.
It’s unlikely material for the two stars, who last appeared together in the apocalyptic stoner comedy “This is the End.” These aren’t bad actors; Hill, in fact, is a deserved two-time Oscar nominee, while Franco’s experience runs the gamut of genres, as everyone knows.
Maybe they’re just too friendly, or our experiences of them in a much different context are too strongly felt, but they simply can’t build the necessary dramatic and psychological tension to sustain a story that revolves around the conversations between one-time New York Times journalist Mike Finkel (Hill) and Christian Longo (Franco), a man accused of butchering his own family.
The real-life Longo was busted after having stolen Finkel’s identity, so Goold’s adaptation of the latter’s memoir focuses on the ways the prison conversations roil the journalist’s sense of himself, calling into question many of his most closely-held tenants.
The setup is there: the overwhelming fluorescent lights and pristine metallic surfaces of the interrogation room provide a piquant contrast with the increasing inner turmoil. Goold effectively evokes a mood of isolation. At the same time, Hill underplays things smartly. Mike seems like a real man going through something significant, even if it’s never translated to the audience in riveting terms.
The movie aspires to more, obviously, but it embeds itself in the true crime gutter. Because the interpersonal dynamic never has that tight, thrilling “Silence of the Lambs” vibe, “True Story” is forced to rely excessively on its plot.
And frankly, in this age of “Serial” and “The Jinx,” there just isn’t much room for the rather mundane questions of Longo’s guilt and motivations.